Why Such Little Humanizing?
Updated: Jan 8
By Danny Dahms
As we all know, NCAA athletics have been plagued by COVID just the same as every other business has. Conferences and schools have lost revenue through a decline in ticket sales, sponsorships, broadcasts and other revenue streams. That has led to an explosion of fundraising drives. We have seen so many of these programs start with excitement, but then lose their fizz as communications falls into what we call the “Game Trap.”
We continue to see too many school’s web sites, social, newsletters, etc. focus on game results and highlights. They are missing the engaging and captivating content that will resonate with the campus community, fans and alumni. It is our belief that by humanizing student-athletes, coaches and support staff, schools are missing opportunities to connect with the overwhelming majority who are not diehard fans.
As I’ve done each of the last few months, now it’s time to take a look at how 15 different DI schools are doing with their content:
University of Maryland - BIG 10
Maryland is one of the schools that is really able to make you feel a connection to their student-athletes, their school, and their fundraising initiatives. As a whole, they do a great job at selling why you’d want to give into their multiple causes.
● On the social media side of things, the Terps frequently humanize their student-athletes, along with others, through various articles and videos. One of these articles is this post that highlights the relationship of former UMD quarterback Caleb Rowe, and former UMD midfielder, Sarah Molina. While the post is only an article, which isn’t very engaging, it still successfully creates empathy for the two by showing how they met and eventually got married because of a bond they formed through Maryland athletics.
● Another way that the Terps were able to show the human aspect of their student-athletes was through this video featuring their men’s basketball team. While the team is obviously not able to have their friends and family come support them in person, the basketball staff surprised the team with cutouts of all of their family members in the stands when the players arrived at warm-ups. They then recorded the reactions of the players seeing their mothers, their children, and even their pets sitting courtside.
● UMD also brings attention to its CSR work. One of these causes is the Jordan McNair Foundation that is focused on bringing attention to the danger of heat stroke and other heat-related illness in athletes. One of the Maryland football players, Josh Woods, showed his support for this cause by wearing custom cleats that showed the name of the foundation.
University of Florida - SEC
This season, the Florida Gators reclaimed their title as a top ten football program in the nation and they have one of the most innovative content creation teams to boot. Both of these factors create the perfect storm for the university to have one of the most strongly supported fundraising campaigns in the SEC.
● An amazing way that the Gators connect with prospective donors and benefactors is through highlighting their work with the University’s pediatric hospital. In this post, the university shares images of some of the children they are directly helping and they have also pledged to send free gear to the children at their health facility. They also provided a phone number for fans to use to send words of encouragement to their “special fans.” This is an amazing act by the university and it also shows the real-world impact that the Gators have outside the world of sports.
● The Gators also connect with their audience and show the personalities of several of their student-athletes and coaches through this light-hearted video. In the video, the school mascots, Albert and Alberta Gator, FaceTimed several student-athletes and coaches while the content creation team recorded and compiled their reactions. The short interactions in each call showed the humor that each of their players possess, and it showed that these are likeable people that could benefit from any funds that the school receives.
Appalachian State University - Sun Belt
In recent years, the Mountaineers have definitely been on the upswing in both athletics and academics, as their football team just recently clinched their six bowl berth in as many years. Understandably, the ASU community has a lot to be excited about and the content creation team at ASU does a great job at turning this excitement into alumni engagement.
● Similar to Penn State’s “Sack Hunger” initiative, the Mountaineers have their own sack-based fundraiser. For every sack this season, the school has donated 1,000 meals to those in need throughout North Carolina. This helps prove to donors that the money they give to the school is being used to pay it forward, instead of only benefitting the school itself.
● App State has done an incredible job with their recent alumni-based fundraiser, the “Reaching New Heights Challenge.” Instead of being like any other run-of-the-mill fundraiser, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern University created a competition to see which schools can gather the most donations from as many states as possible. This is a genius way to incentivize the campus community and all alumni to contribute towards the fund and to participate in the school’s activities as a whole.
● The school has partnered with Hardees to provide free burgers every time the basketball team makes six or more three-pointers. Even though this is a very basic premise, it’s just another way to keep the greater Appalachian State audience engaged with their team’s performance.
Princeton University - Ivy League
With absolutely no sports until early spring, the Tigers’ social media team has had to get very creative in order to generate fan interest and show their community and their potential donors that they are still a school worth investing in.
● Even though there’s no games, Princeton has still been acknowledging the history of their athletics and any major milestone that the school has reached this year, such as the 50th anniversary of the Tigers women’s basketball program. Upon the program’s bicentennial anniversary, the school received a large anonymous endowment towards their athletics, and the women’s basketball program responded with multiple lengthy posts thanking the community and the donor specifically. A little thanks can go a long way for anyone who was on the fence about giving towards the school.
● Another incredible way that the school has generated donations over the past month is through their recent holiday drive. Despite the school being in a restrictive financial situation themselves from a lack of athletics-based revenue, they’ve still been primarily promoting community outreach initiatives and holiday themed fundraisers for the needy, as opposed to only promoting their own cause. Any potential benefactors can find solace in the fact that Princeton is genuinely invested in the betterment of their community.
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University of Dayton - Pioneer
College basketball couldn’t come around soon enough for the Flyers, who were deprived of concluding last year’s incredible run. Still, the Flyers graciously handled the obstacles presented by COVID and they haven’t slowed down the production of their appealing and engaging content.
● Dayton does an excellent job of showcasing their student-athletes and their individual personalities. The Flyers regularly conduct “Senior Spotlights” which showcase some of the senior student-athletes on campus and provide insight as to what the players are really like. As we’ve said before, this is key to promoting the more human aspects of a school’s athletes, which is what sticks with fans and alumni the most.
● The Flyers also created empathy towards their student-athletes and their school as a whole through their recent cards and craft kids activity that they conducted for the holidays this past month. This activity saw members from several different teams put together several holiday-themed activity packages that the school plans to ship to the children in the area. While this in itself is a very simple act of kindness, it still goes a long way to show what kind of people the athletes at Dayton are and why people would want to support them.
Eastern Michigan University - MAC
EMU does a solid job of staying connected with their alumni community.
● The Eagles have a new team - women’s lacrosse team – and they promoted the signing of their first ever women’s lacrosse recruit to the sport’s first scholarship. This was a great example of going far beyond wins and losses to create engaging content and draw people in..
● EMU also used football to assist in its CSR efforts. For every field goal this season, the Eagles have donated a gallon of milk to the needy, which is another example of a school using their resources to pay it forward.
● Several schools on this list have their own unique podcasts or radio shows, however, Eastern Michigan takes a unique approach to incentivize fans to listen to theirs. Within each week’s podcast, there is a special keyword, which when messaged to the school’s social media accounts, enters the listener into a free raffle for EMU branded merchandise. This practice both increases listener engagement, and can provide free exposure from the fans lucky enough to receive the gear.
University of Washington - Pac-12
The Huskies sit right in the middle of our standings. They are sometimes able to create empathetic and compelling content, but they also find themselves as another victim of the game trap.
● I found that the Washington social media team heavily focuses on the games themselves instead of the players or the character of the school.
● Even though the majority of the Huskies’ content is directly related to team performance, they still do a great job at showcasing the history and tradition of their athletics, and with this being the 100th season for their football team, this was the perfect opportunity to do so. One of the most effective and interesting ways they have capitalized on this was by creating a video of a recreation of their first game’s program from 1920 and showing how deeply rooted football is in the school’s tradition.
● The Washington Twitter account also has an effectively humanizing post as the pinned tweet at the top of their account’s feed. The post in question is a video of players and coaches speaking about what it means to be more than an athlete at the university. This is already a great way for the athletics department to show the human side of their sports teams, but by also pinning it to the top of their feed, it allows for quick and easy access for anyone browsing through their accounts.
Syracuse University - ACC
Syracuse is another right in the middle of the pack.
● The Orange can sometimes be a victim of the game trap, as they occasionally find themselves relying on primarily posting score and schedule updates as the bulk of their content.
● Occasionally the Orange social media team will feature a specific member of one of their athletics teams in a personalized, interview-style article, such as this post featuring men’s basketball player, Woody Newton. In the future, they could benefit even further from conducting this Q&A via a livestream format.
● A bright spot in the Syracuse fundraising tactics is their #44HoursofChange fundraising initiative, which aimed to provide elementary aged children with food over the weekend when they didn’t have access to their school cafeterias. The Syracuse donation site directly explained how much food each amount of money would buy which allows potential donors to see a direct change coming from their effort, instead of feeling like they were throwing money into a bottomless pit like many other university fundraisers appear.
Creighton University - Big East
The Blue Jays are another school that spends the year anxiously waiting for the college basketball season to finally roll around. However, even during the offseason, Creighton still creates content that keeps their greater community invested.
● While it isn’t the most common type of post on the Jays’ athletics page, I liked when they reposted images and posts from their former players. Even though it’s nothing more than a simple retweet, it still shows former Blue Jays that the school cares about them post-graduation. For example, they featured alumni Kyle Korver and Anthony Tolliver meeting with Pope Francis on behalf of the NBA to discuss racial injustice.
● A few weeks ago, Creighton posted an article highlighting how the school boasts one of the top student-athlete graduation rates in the country. Shouldn’t this have gotten more play? Isn’t this the ultimate goal of an athletic department? It deserves a video that could be utilized in numerous other platforms.
Army – Patriot League; FBS Independent
The athletic department benefits from the pageantry of West Point, but I didn’t see enough “behind-the-scenes” content that I expected. Every one of their student-athletes is an American hero, but nowhere I found was I able to get to know them.
● A look at GoArmyWestPoint.com shows a reliance on press releases and game recaps. And when you move over to their social feeds, it’s more of the same.
● And, while it’s not your fault, somebody please tell Learfield/IMG College to make it easier to find the social media feeds.
UMBC - America East
UMBC has been on the map since their historic upset over Virginia in the first round of March Madness only a few years ago. UMBC has used this exposure to gather tens of thousands of followers on social media and they definitely attempt to use this popularity to their advantage.
● One of the ways that UMBC stands out to their fans and alumni is through how vocal they are in their stance on ending racism. They’ve created their own campaign based on the topic which features student-athletes and coaches speaking on what the campaign means to them.
● The Retrievers also do a solid job at highlighting the work and accomplishments of their alumni, such as these posts about Kizzy Corbett, who has been instrumental in the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine. Alumni recognition is a vital ingredient of staying connected with former students, who are often the people most susceptible to donating and supporting the school.
● UMBC does create empathetic and engaging content, but it is not consistent enough.
University of Kansas - Big 12
KU was the perfect example of what I spoke about at the top of the article. They had a KU Swimming and Diving Match Challenge where an anonymous donor would match all donations to the program. At the conclusion, they raised more than $96,000. But all I saw was a press release. Where were the student-athletes in video saying thank you and why the donations matter?
● Prior to tipoff of the basketball season, Kansas posted multiple videos interviewing the men’s and women’s basketball players at center court about unity and equality. They make sure to say that while they’re striving for national championships, they are also more concerned about something greater off the court first and foremost. Powerful!
● The Jayhawks recently launched and promoted an all-in-one Kansas athletics free mobile app. But I had to search for it on KUAthletics.com.
● I was also disappointed that a school with the resources I would expect KU to have relies so much on press release content. I’d love more video and not just of the football and basketball coach’s post-game comments.
University of Cincinnati - AAC
Having a great football team and an incredible season is not enough.
● Going back almost an entire month, the only posts on the main Bearcats athletics account are score updates and highlight reels. Only in a select handful of posts are any athletes ever actually mentioned by name.
● I did like the video featuring the seniors of the football team hosted by the team’s punter, where he goes around to his fellow classmates and asks them about their most memorable stories at the university. These stories are the things that will resonate with any alumni or potential students when they think about what the Cincinnati experience is really like.
● A unique tool at the Bearcats’ disposal is how closely they work with the Cincinnati Zoo. With their mascot actually being a bearcat at the zoo, they often feature videos from the zoo grounds with the handlers talking about how they’re rooting on the school from a distance. Even though this is relatively insignificant, it’s still another much needed source of personality for the school that can show any benefactors that they’re not just giving their money to a faceless brand.
Marshall University - C-USA
You can definitely see that basketball is a top priority of the Marshall content creation team, as most of their content falls into the “Game Trap” category.
● The vast majority of content throughout the month of December for Marshall has been either score updates, schedule changes, or short highlights.
● Despite the majority of Marshall’s content being game-based, they make sure to heavily emphasize the faces and the performances of their student-athletes. The Herd’s social media accounts regularly post stories featuring the players and they consistently post anytime a student-athlete receives an award, which is definitely appealing to current and former students. However, almost all of these posts are simply pictures or articles, which as we’ve discussed before, is very limiting for engagement purposes.
● Early in the month of December, the Herd had a very innovative proposition for a “Virtual Scavenger Hunt.” Since their audience obviously wasn’t allowed on campus this past year, this was a good way to stay connected with their community and to prove that they are still attempting to be innovative behind the scenes.
Murray State University - Ohio Valley
Racer basketball is always the highlight of the year at Murray State and you’d be hard-pressed to find any content that’s unrelated to the school’s basketball program.
● Going back as far as mid-November, you could count the non-basketball related posts on two hands. While the basketball team is definitely the heart and soul of this school, it couldn’t hurt to add more variety in the content to create more appeal to a wider audience.
● While the Racers are certainly at fault for relying solely on basketball content, they still do a great job at utilizing their most famous basketball alumni for free publicity. One of the biggest young faces in the NBA, Ja Morant, is a product of Murray State athletics and the school makes sure to show off his success and use him as an example of the opportunity that Murray State creates for its student-athletes.
● I did really like the support of Special Olympics Kentucky and the use of student-athletes to create a video calling for support of the cause.
Game scores, highlights and schedules are not the end-all be-all of how a college can generate support. Instead, by humanizing and creating empathy towards their student-athletes, their alumni, and their greater community, these schools allow themselves to resonate more with anyone who is looking to lend a helping hand during these troubling times.